Our Neighbors’ History: Saving The St. Vrain Mill

Mill with Fnd Members cropped
The Saint Vrain Mill Preservation and Historical Foundation held a ribbon cutting in 2015 as they launched their endeavor to save the old mill at Mora, NM. Photo by Sharon Snyder

Our Neighbors’ History: Saving The St. Vrain Mill

By Sharon Snyder
Los Alamos Historical Society

An awareness of our neighbors’ history can open new adventures, and in the case of the St. Vrain Mill in Mora, NM, there is a local connection as well. Los Alamos resident Christine St. Vrain Fischahs is a 4th-great-niece of Ceran St. Vrain, the man who built the mill.

St. Vrain was born in the Missouri Territory to a family that had escaped the French Revolution.

As a young man, he headed west in 1825, joining a freight caravan led by William Becknell, known as the Father of the Santa Fe Trail. Becknell had made his first crossing from Missouri to New Mexico four years earlier.

St. Vrain made his way to Taos, where he joined trappers who traveled throughout the West, but he eventually teamed up with traders Charles and William Bent at Bent’s Fort, located near present-day La Junta, CO. Combining what he learned from the Bent brothers with his own ambition, St. Vrain would establish homes and businesses in Taos, Las Vegas, Mora, and Santa Fe, operating gristmills, ranches, and lumber mills.

In 1847, he became a key figure in putting down the Taos Revolt, and during the Civil War, he was a colonel with the 1st New Mexico Volunteer Infantry.

When the territory was secure, 65-year-old Ceran St. Vrain retired to Mora and built the gristmill in 1864.

The mill produced more than 100,000 pounds of flour per year, with some of the wheat grown in fields around Mora, and for a time Mora County was considered the “breadbasket of the Southwest.”

Flour was supplied to surrounding towns, frontier forts including nearby Fort Union, and as far away as Bosque Redondo at Ft. Sumner, where almost 10,000 Navajos and Apaches were being held after the Long Walk.

Milling operations in Mora ended in 1933. During World War II, the metal elements in the mill were turned over to the U.S. government, and other equipment was subsequently sold, leaving only the mill wheel and the stone and wood building.

In 1972 the structure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but in 2002, the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division listed it as one of the ten most endangered buildings in the state.

The old mill is now being preserved by a group of Mora citizens and supporters who see the value of saving this important piece of New Mexico history.

Their first step was to raise the $27,000 to buy the building and the acre of land where it stands, which they accomplished through donations and matching grants.

The Saint Vrain Mill Preservation and Historical Foundation, a nonprofit organization, intends to renovate the “lovely old mill” and transform it into a cultural center that could display historical exhibits and have space for meetings, weddings, festivals, and more.

In 2016, even though the building was yet to be restored, the Mora community was given the chance to become reacquainted with the mill when the foundation hosted the Fall Fest Pumpkin Patch that October.

“This may have been the first time the Mill has been part of a community activity, since –well, maybe forever,” someone commented.

The mill is part of the Mora Arts & Cultural Compound, which consists of St. Gertrude’s Catholic Church and its plaza; the Mora Valley Spinning Mill, which includes the fiber processing facility and old Mora theater; the old Butler Hotel; and the Mora Economic Revitalization Center.

In 2016, the Foundation won the prestigious Historic Preservation Recognition Award from the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution—Stephen Watts Kearny Chapter in Santa Fe, honoring a group that has worked diligently to preserve what is an irreplaceable site and part of the American West legacy.

In a tribute to that diligence and dedication, Charlie Strickfaden, Ft. Union superintendent in 2016, commented, “I have been in awe of the Foundation’s exhaustive efforts to gain recognition for the St. Vrain mill as a historic landmark worthy of preservation and repair.”

This determined group is on its way!

Los Alamos resident Christine St. Vrain Fischahs stands in front of the old St. Vrain Mill in Mora, NM, in June of 2015. Photo by Sharon